Though some construction will continue into the fall, the bulk of the 91 Express Lanes project ended early Monday when the westbound lanes opened about 4:10 a.m., only a few minutes behind schedule. Lanes on the freeway’s eastbound side also opened on time at 5 a.m. Cars began using the new lanes immediately and traffic flowed smoothly.
The $1.4 billion project added two toll lanes and one general-use lane in each direction on an 8-mile stretch from the 15 Freeway west to the Orange County line in the hopes of easing congestion along the heavily traveled corridor, one of Southern California’s most congested.
This milestone culminates a decade of work on the biggest project the Riverside County Transportation Commission has ever done. Crews also built or widened 32 bridges, improved five interchanges and realigned and repaved local streets. A March 31 dedication ceremony for local officials is planned.
Despite the occasion, some residents still worry that the expansion will barely make a dent in alleviating travelers’ traffic woes.
“I hope it helps,” said Louie Castillo, a clerk at the Shell gas station off McKinley Street in
“I hope it helps,” Louie Castillo, a clerk at the Shell gas station off McKinley Street in Corona, said minutes before the lanes opened. “There are just so many people now. A lot of people using the freeway, but I hope it helps.”
Colton resident Robert Evans, who works in Orange County a few days a week, laughed as he put gas at an ARCO gas station on Serfas Club Drive in Corona on Monday morning.
“I’ve become an expert on surface-street driving,” he said.
“I’m sure people who live in the neighborhoods (surrounding the construction) are happy to have their streets back,” he said.
Evans had an Express Lane pass but said the hardest part of his commute was McKinley Street to the old toll road entrance near Serfas Club Drive and then beginning near Green River Drive to the 15 Freeway for his drive home.
By 5 a.m. Monday, westbound traffic in the non-toll lanes was already clogged and started to slow at Lincoln Avenue and came to a crawl by Serfas Club Drive.
“I’m not surprised,” said Tosha Kelley, a clerk at the ARCO gas station on Lincoln, south of the 91.
Kelley, who lives in Riverside near Van Buren Boulevard, says she takes the northbound 15 Freeway then navigates back streets to get to work. If she were to take the 91 for the fewer than 10 miles directly to work, she said it would take her about 30 minutes, compared to the 15 to 20 using her detour.
“I avoid the 91 at all cost,” she said. “I don’t think anything will make it better.”
John Standiford, deputy executive director for Riverside County Transportation Commission, acknowledged slowing on the westbound lanes Monday.
“If people use the Express Lane, that will take some cars off the mainline and should improve traffic,” Standiford said.
By the afternoon though, the general-purpose lanes seemed to flow better than in the morning, he said.
“It’s way too early to draw any conclusions,” he said Monday afternoon. “We’ll be continuing to monitor how things are going. Over the course of a few weeks, I’m sure there will be some adjustments on how people drive the area.”
Tolls for using the Express Lanes vary and range from $1.55 up to $10.45, depending on time of day and day of the week, according to 91 ExpressLanes.com.
While construction crews worked, drivers suffered through the “Corona Squeeze” — during which the size of lanes was narrowed from 12 feet to 10.5 feet — and “Coronageddon,” a 55-hour shutdown of the entire freeway last February. The project also required numerous detours and ramp and road closures that sometimes caused traffic to back up onto city roads.
Before Monday’s opening, workers mounted a final push that included completion of several projects during the weekend:
• Reopening of the westbound Maple Street off-ramp
• Reinstating two-way travel across the Maple Bridge
• Completed widening of the Lincoln Avenue Bridge
• Repaved various sections of roadway
• Restriped the roadway to allow motorists to enter and exit the new lanes
• Installed delineators to separate the 91 Express Lanes from general-purpose lanes
• Completed electrical connections and tested the tolling system.
Corona City Councilman Eugene Montanez hopes the new lanes will alleviate traffic that builds up in city streets. Corona, he said, is used as a funnel for those traveling to Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Corona residents have not only been impacted by the construction on the 91, but also by the number of motorists who cut through the city to avoid traffic.
“Our residents have been just hugely impacted,” Montanez said.
He’s not celebrating yet.
“(I’ll) wait a couple of weeks before everyone is used to the new format,” Montanez said Monday afternoon. “As of today, traffic in Corona is still a challenge.”
“The real solution to traffic is really creating higher-paying jobs on this side of the canyon … That’s the ultimate goal, to try to provide jobs here so people are not having to drive on the freeway,” he added.
Staff writer Imran Ghori contributed to this report.